Getting a Mongolian visa and getting on the train to Zamyn-Uud
Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 8
The Mongolian visa office at the consulate in Erlian opened at 8am. I was there at twenty-to. There was only one other guy there. Another arrived at around ten-past. The office still hadn’t opened and there was no one that looked like doing so. I needed to get my visa and get from Erlian to Mongolia forthwith.
It got to about 8:20 before someone emerged from the rear door. From shoes to belt he was as uniformed and official as could be. From belt upwards, it was vest all the way. He was a young guy with a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip as casually as he was dressed. He told us to come back at 9:00. The office would be open then. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Nine o’clock arrived, and so, in the meantime, had around a dozen other people all milling around the gate in disorderly anticipation hoping to get their own Mongolian visas. When the still-vested official finally did come and open the gate at around 9:15, the predictable scrum to be first to the desk ensued.
There didn’t seem to be a system. Everybody simply crowded round the desk while another guy – this time with his shirt on – handed out visa application forms to those that didn’t have one. But gradually, over the course of about thirty minutes, a system and a queue did begin to form, and after cigarette and breakfast breaks because the two now shirted officials had already worked so very very hard that morning, they started letting people through, two at a time, to another room through a door at the rear of the office.
I paid Y495 for same day service and hoped I’d be able to pick up my visa at midday at the latest. They told me to come back at 15:00 and I resigned myself to not getting to Ulaanbaatar anywhere near in time to catch my train to Moscow. I’d done my best, but fate had screwed me. I returned to my hostel to work out how I could possibly get from Erlian to Mongolia before my journey fell apart. But first I decided to go to the station.
The station was unoccupied when I got there but for a woman sitting at a desk at the entrance. I asked her speculatively if there was a train travelling from Erlian to Zamyn-Uud that day. She said there was. It was train 685 and it left at 16:30. Maybe I could catch this train and get across the border in time to catch the 17:38 train to Ulaanbaatar. But I knew the customs and passport checks on both sides would make this impossible. They would take at least an hour each. I left dispirited and crossed the road back to my hotel.
But after a couple of hours’ inability to conjure a way to save the trip, my laptop told me that there should be a train leaving from Erlian to Ulaanbaatar every Monday evening. It was Monday today. Was this the same train? I shoved on my shoes and ran back across the road to see if there were any tickets left. But the station was now closed until 3pm. There was a ticket office a little further along on the opposite side but this too was closed. I walked away feeling utterly helpless.
There were two old women that had been sitting on the step next to the office. I gave them a wave as I passed. They gave me a stare back and asked where I was going. I told them I needed to get from Erlian to Ulaanbaatar that night and they produced a ticket from a pile they pulled from somewhere within their pockets.
“Y66,” they said.
But it couldn’t be for that price. And the ticket only said Erlian to Zamyn-Uud. I asked them again and they said yes, the train went to Ulaanbaatar. “Do I have to change trains at Zamyn-Uud?” I asked. “No.” “And this ticket will get me from Erlian to Ulaanbaatar tonight?” “Yes.” I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t believe that this ticket could solve all of my many mounting problems. But they seemed certain I could get from Erlian to Mongolia and on to Ulaanbaatar on that train. I handed over the Y66 and took the ticket, still unsure, but prepared to take the only chance I had.
I returned to the Mongolian visa office at 3pm. There was the same laissez-faire attitude towards opening on time and the same scramble to get in, but I was out of there and in a taxi back to the station, Mongolian visa in hand, by 15:40. There was more explaining of strange stamps in my passport from the day before to the official on the desk at passport control, but within thirty minutes I was through and onto the platform and onto train 685 that was waiting.
We didn’t leave for another hour (the train was actually scheduled to leave at 17:10) and while I was putting my bags on my bed in my compartment I asked the one other guy in there if the train and my ticket would get me to Ulaanbaatar. He said yes, though I’d have to buy the Zamyn-Uud to Ulaanbaatar ticket on the train later.
I felt the most profound relief. A smile broke across my face that would have made even myself a little uneasy had there been a mirror around to view it in. I still didn’t know what time we would arrive, but when he told me that all being well, we’d arrive around 11:00 the next morning, I could have kissed him. If we got to Ulaanbaatar on time, I’d be able to pick up my ticket for my train to Moscow and get back to the station in time to make the 13:50 departure. I almost hyper-ventilated. I wasn’t there yet, but it looked like I’d make it.